Episode 92 │ We Pay for Enough in This Life (ACCRA)
Updated: Sep 22
"There's so many programs out there that people don't know about, and it's just time for people to, you know, definitely take advantage and be able to have these different experiences for free. We pay for enough in this life." (Christina, Episode 92)
2/22/22, and a new episode for all of you!
Kirsten, Christen, and now Christina... For episodes 90-92 I've somehow managed to feature guests with similar names back-to-back, but regardless of the similarity I appreciate having had the chance to learn more about each person's uniqueness. This week on Young, Gifted and Abroad we're focusing on the uniqueness of Christina Presmy, someone I know through a scholarship fund called Diverse International Women of Color. Alhia from episode 35 founded DIWC, and Christina was among the scholarship's very first recipients when she went to Accra, Ghana as an undergraduate student in 2019. Christina benefited so greatly from the extra financial help, and was so moved by Alhia's mission to support women of color studying abroad, that she joined DIWC's board as the Director of Application Reviews. That's how she and I became acquainted in 2021, since she was the point-person for me and other volunteers who reviewed scholarship applications that year. Now, on top of being a DIWC board member and a travel writer/blogger (Being Christina Jane), since August 2021 Christina has been living in Accra, where she's pursuing a master's degree at no financial cost to herself. I was curious about how she made that happen, and also how the dual endeavors of expat life and graduate school are going for her so far, so that's what she and I talked about!
Christina grew up in a Haitian family in Fort Myers, Florida. Even through the awkward phase of feeling like her folks might be "weird" or the disconnect of never having been to Haiti—she finally went for the first time in 2021—she was raised by her immigrant parents to know and cherish her cultural heritage, from speaking Haitian Kreyòl at home, to eating Haitian food on the regular, to attending Haitian churches. Her choice to go to Ghana in college was influenced by a similar impulse to connect to her roots, namely her African ones. She initially started out as a social work major at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (Florida A&M or FAMU, a historically-Black university in Tallahassee), where she recalls that less than 1% of the student body was going abroad. Of that small percentage, everyone seemed to be going to Europe. Before even setting foot on campus, Christina had been speaking to the study abroad office and knew she wanted to go somewhere different. And although she'd never met a Ghanaian person by this point and had no connection to Ghana at all, she was drawn to that country, "It felt like Ghana was calling me. I didn't know why." So for the summer of 2019 she spent two months in Accra, studying at the Ghana campus of Webster University, a Missouri-based institution that has multiple campuses in the US and in other countries around the world. Since Webster had a partnership with FAMU, Christina's flights were paid for and her tuition was reduced by 30%.
Since Christina had only just completed her freshman year, her studies in Ghana consisted of general education credits (psychology and public speaking). While she had previously gone on a group mission trip to Iquitos, Peru in 2016, this was her first time traveling internationally by herself. Additionally, according to her she was the only FAMU student to go to Ghana that year, as well as the sole foreigner at Webster Ghana during the time she was there. Christina was admittedly afraid to do much or venture out on her own at first, but in hindsight she's thankful for how independent the Webster program was. She did receive an information packet prior to departing the States, and then upon arrival sat through an orientation on Ghanaian customs to be mindful of, but for the most part it was up to her to figure things out and choose what she'd do each day. On campus she was surrounded by Ghanaian, Nigerian, Liberian, Cameroonian, and other students from neighboring African countries and beyond, which thankfully forced her to immerse herself in this new environment. Once she summoned the courage to do things alone, her first outing by herself was to get a massage and enjoy some food at A&C Mall, and from then on her day-to-day life outside of class became quite spontaneous. When she wasn't hanging out with her peers on campus, she was exploring Accra and surrounding areas, and had the delight of making new and friendly acquaintances at random.
Before getting there, Christina hadn't realized that 2019 was also Ghana's "Year of Return", a year marking the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans to what is now the United States, and a year during which the Ghanaian government welcomed the African diaspora from around the world to "return" to Ghana . There wasn't much fanfare about it yet during that summer (apparently December is when more major celebrations happen), and she acknowledges that she was in "fun mode", not yet mature or knowledgeable enough to dig deeply into the cultural aspect of her being there. So when I asked her about how spending time in Ghana has affected her view of her Haitian American identity and her understanding of the concept of "Motherland", she couldn't draw too much insight from her first trip. Her current journey, however, has been a completely different story.
Upon returning to the States, transferring to Florida Atlantic University (FAU), and then completing her bachelor's degree in interdisciplinary studies in 2021, Christina researched opportunities to pursue her desired career in international development and re-discovered the Charles B. Rangel International Affairs Program. The Rangel graduate fellowship pays for fellows to pursue a two-year master's degree, in exchange for fellows working in the U.S. Foreign Service for five years after completing said degree. She had heard about the Rangel and other fellowships like the Payne (see Jo from episode 40), and the Pickering (see Katrina from episode 61) during her FAMU years, but the application process seemed too intimidating. This time, however, she realized being set up to become a diplomat was exactly what she wanted for her career, and after applying to all three, she won the Rangel. To make the deal even sweeter, Christina unexpectedly found a loophole that allowed her to return to Webster Ghana: Rangel fellows are required to do their graduate studies at a U.S.-based university, and as a U.S.-accredited institution within the larger Webster University network, Webster Ghana technically counts!
So far, Christina is loving the education she's receiving in Ghana as she works toward a Master of Arts in International Relations (MAIR). As she told me in near disbelief, "For the first time in my life, I can say I'm genuinely enjoying being back in the classroom." It's a welcome change from the repetitive, test-heavy, Western-centric education she'd experienced her whole life in Florida, which had made her reluctant to the idea of grad school before she secured her Rangel fellowship. Webster Ghana emphasizes student-focused learning, and encourages assertive yet still respectful class discussions. Christina especially appreciates the added perspective she gains from professors of varying nationalities (Italy, South Africa, Ghana of course, etc.), and from the subject matter of all her classes tying back to Africa in some way. She's found herself being challenged not only academically, but personally as well. The nuances of her Haitian American identity have been brought into question due to Ghanaians largely not seeing the point in such a distinction; since she wasn't born and raised in Haiti, most people see her simply as Black American. Last term, Christina took an African area studies course wherein the professor said something that stopped her in her tracks, "Show me your Haitian American passport." Acknowledging that she obviously doesn't have one because she's an American "whether I like it or not," Christina has since been contemplating to what extent her American-ness might overshadow her Haitian-ness and her earnest attempts to reconnect to a sense of African roots. While no less proud of who she is, she's embracing this opportunity to further hone in on how she defines herself.
Waking up excited every day
With six months down and a whole year and a half to go as a grad student in Accra, Christina has much on the horizon as she balances multiple passions. In addition to her solo traveling, Christina's first trip to Ghana also unexpectedly kick-started her travel blogging, which she actively continues to do today. She documented almost every day of the 2019 trip on her Instagram stories, and even posted a few vlogs on YouTube to help dispel misconceptions that her followers messaged her about. Later as a student ambassador for FAMU's study abroad office, she interacted with some students who were already aware of her online presence, and who even wanted to go to Ghana themselves thanks to what Christina had shown of it. This motivated her to keep blogging, and Being Christina Jane was born. (Her blog name was inspired by the BET series 'Being Mary Jane'.) Her current work also includes her DIWC duties—2022 applications are open from March 1st to May 1st!—writing for travel publications, and running her own business as a virtual assistant. While doing so much can be overwhelming, and Ghanaian life is full of ups and downs (including not-the-best WiFi), Christina takes joy in the fact that she wakes up excited every day in a way she didn't back home, "I just feel like I've been tried and tested, but at the same time I'm, like, having the best time of my life and I wouldn't trade the experience for anything."
When we spoke, Christina hadn't been outside Ghana yet but did have plans to go to Italy in February for her birthday. She's also considering studying in Greece for two months in fall 2022, and would love to spend more time in Bali to re-experience the sense of peace and emphasis on wellness she felt there. As for her career, she's open to wherever the U.S. State Department will send her as a foreign service officer, and hopes to eventually visit every country in Africa (including Benin and Togo, which many Haitians have traced their ancestry to). Meanwhile, Christina looks forward to taking her time using her online content to break down Ghanaian life for people, and can be found on her blog (beingchristinajane.com), on Instagram (@beingchristinajane), and on Twitter (@beingcjwrites).
Be sure to listen to this episode, "We Pay for Enough in This Life (ACCRA)" for more! And don't forget to check out the resource list below!
"How I’m Getting My Master’s Degree for Free in Ghana" (from Christina's blog)
"Why Black Americans Are Saying Ghana Is the Place to Be" (Christina's article for Fodor's Travel)
A&C Mall (Accra)
Ghana's "Year of Return" (2019)